Thursday 3 September 2009

Meanings of life?

Meanwhile back in our favourite wine bar, Gloria and I fell to thinking about the meaning of life. A few years ago I read a brief newspaper article on this by Julian Baggini which today left merely the following trace thought (which may owe very little at all to Baggini’s no doubt rather better ideas). (Later: I think I must have been thinking of this one. My poor memory is perhaps explained by its 2004 publication date.)

The temptation to ask questions about the meaning of life is based on a mistaken extrapolation from the everyday case of asking for the meaning or purpose or significance of particular actions and being appropriately answered by appeal to the broader project to which they contribute. But whilst that everyday case locates lower level acts in broader projects, and whilst it iterates -those projects can be meaningfully located within yet broader projects - it is mistake to think that such iteration continues without limit. Thus whilst one can ask within an adopted framework what the meaning or purpose of a subsidiary act is, there’s no reason to think that for an arbitrary high level that such a question can be answered. One’s projects may simply run out in the whimsical adoption of the goal of being or becoming a bank manager, pop star or professional philosopher.

My apparent memory of such a position may well have drawn rather inappropriate analogical support from Julian Dodd’s argument that there is no norm of truth: just lots of specific norms each corresponding to an instance of the T-schema. So, here, there is no meaning of life just lots of specific meanings of particular projects.

But surely, argued G, such an approach would leave the uncontextualised last project vulnerable to a charge of meaninglessness. One might, at 5am, ask: my aim to be a bank manager explains why I have risen early and attended courses in financial planning but what is the meaning or purpose of being a bank manager? And if so, that would undermine all its subsidiary acts or projects which would unravel like knitting with a loose end.

So if there is not to be such a loose end, there had better be a kind of ultimate meaning: perhaps a general conception of human flourishing. If so, it would be not merely a vacuous label for all the different last projects (bank manager, philosopher, pop star). Rather it would have to be a sufficiently explanatorily thick conception. But again, any such substantial conception would be open to the 5am question: I know that if I want to fit Aristotle’s conception of flourishing I have to balance my character traits in accord with his doctrine of the mean, still, what’s the meaning or purpose of doing that? So it would have instead to be Platonised. It would have to be a putative general meaning or purpose that was not merely adopted (if I want to fit Aristotle’s conception of flourishing...) but rather took a subject by the throat [cf Lewis Carroll]. It would be an ultimate rather than merely a last or final meaning, a meaning that needed no further contextualisation.

(This isn’t quite the right way of putting it. One might say: a proper education opens one’s eyes to the demands of virtues such that those demands constrain at least those with eyes to see them. This is a happy merely naturalised Platonism not a rampant one that can compel just anyone, or take them by the throat. But to address the 5am worry of arbitrariness, we’d need those virtues to make very specific demands. They would have generally to insist on, or preclude, anyone being a bank manager, for example. And it’s hard to see how such demands would not be rampant in that case. If on the other hand they were person-specific, it’s hard to see how that would amount to a normative standard at all and thus would merit the label ‘platonism’.)

Now neither Gloria nor I have any expertise in this area but it seems both plausible and interesting that this way of beginning the issue presents this dilemma: either a kind of existentialist creation of meaning or a Platonised idea of an ultimate meaning or conception that someone obliges us without our agreement. Neither seems an easy idea but it seems better to me to face up to the former than the latter.